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Demystifying the Lean Startup

  • Product Management
  • Startup
  • Lean Startup

These days it seems I’m known less for my role as co-founder and CEO of The Development Factory — where we help conceive, design and build more than 80 products a year for brands and entrepreneurs — than I am for my role as Product Management Instructor at General Assembly.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore GA and I love teaching.

In one of my lectures I have a particular slide that reads:

What is a Lean Startup?

I usually ask for a show of hands to see how many people have heard of the term “lean” or “lean startup.” Depending on the mix, I would say more than half the group usually raises their hand.

Then I like to ask students to keep their hand up if they feel comfortable enough to share their definition of lean startup with the class. At that point there’s usually no more hands up.

To properly understand Lean, it’s important to detour to another ubiquitous (but equally misunderstood) term: Agile.

Agile is a software delivery method. In short, it’s an approach that strives to deliver sets of features faster, so that all stakeholders can then touch, poke, cry or rejoice over what’s been built. The goal is to get valuable feedback sooner and leave room to make changes or improvements if the product isn’t working as hoped.

This is contrary to Waterfall Method, where the distance between the original idea and the final output is often long and disconnected.

waterfall-method In Waterfall Method, a product is passed off from one department to the next. Like in a game of broken telephone, oftentimes the end result is very different from the inciting idea.

Where Agile tends to get fuzzy is when it’s interchangeably referred to as “scrum” or “lean.” In reality, Scrum, Lean, Kanban, XP and Crystal are all Agile methods. This is best illustrated below — where Agile and its twelve guiding principles are seen as the umbrella under which Scrum and Lean rest.

agile-umbrella Agile is the parent. Lean is a child of Agile.

You will get a far better education as to how Lean thinking was appropriated from the software development community by the business community if you read Eric Ries’ seminal text, The Lean Startup.

But since we’re here now, let me offer a quick summary:

A hundred years of canonical management books doesn’t offer much practical advice to startup businesses who are highly focused on “making it” before they run out of time and cash.

It’s not that startups — read: businesses that have not yet figured out how to scale their success — don’t need systems and process. Rather, the systems and processes that work well for established organizations simply don’t map to early stage companies.

A lean startup, then, is an early stage company that has adopted “validated learning” as its guiding framework.

The Learning Validation Loop

In business and in product we make a lot of assumptions to inform our strategy. Oftentimes those assumptions are little more than guesses.

Making assumptions is OK and, frankly, necessary; at least until you can replace your assumptions with more reliable evidence.

The Learning Validation Loop, like Agile, seeks to limit the amount of time and money spent chasing the wrong idea. Its premise is simple:

  • Create a hypothesis for the assumption(s) you are trying to validate.
  • Create an experiment (sometimes called an “MVP” — minimum viable product) that will allow you to test those assumptions.
  • Collect the data.
  • Change your approach in response to what the data is telling you.

iteration-loop “Iterate” is just a fancy of way of saying “to do over and over again.” The subtext of an iterative approach is that you don’t go forward until you get the first thing right.

The build-measure-learn cycle ensures that you do not pass GO, do not collect $200, until you have systematically replaced all your assumptions with proof, reducing business risk.

Do you have an idea or a product you’re looking to scale? Contact me and let’s discuss it.

Suzanne Abate, is the co-founding partner of The Development Factory and a Managing Director of My Time Blocks, a web-based time management app, and Rocket Reel, an online interface for managing video asset libraries. She has helped to develop websites and platforms for premier brands such as Jaguar Land Rover, Philip Morris International, Best Buy and Disney, as well as provide digital production guidance and support to many of North America’s leading advertising agencies. Suzanne is passionate about productivity and helping businesses increase their profitability through efficient systems. She also consults clients on user experience, systems workflows and strategies for effective sales and marketing, and teaches Product Management for General Assembly in Los Angeles.

Originally published at on February 19, 2016.

100 Product Managers began with a mission to interview one hundred active product managers in Los Angeles - from startups to enterprise. We didn't realize we were also pioneering the web's first consolidated and comprehensive resource for product management topics.